BRICking It: The rise of the emerging markets

Will the emerging markets save us all from recession?

The four leading emerging economies, those with the best current and projected growth rates, are generally recognised as being Brazil, Russia, India and China. Collectively these nations are known as the 'BRIC' nations.

These four rivals to western economic dominance have some key traits in common: they are well endowed in terms of land-mass, population size and natural resources.

With opportunities for high returns in the saturated European and North American markets ever scarcer, western investment firms have been looking towards new frontiers in search of bargains.

Their own established markets of North America, the United Kingdom, Western Europe, Japan and Hong Kong offer little hope of this - their competitive nature means there are a sufficient number of buyers and sellers of assets to create stable prices.

China looks particularly well placed set to continue its meteoric rise over the coming year. Having recently surpassed the United States as the world's largest exporter of goods, the Chinese economy is growing at a rate of 10% a year. It is already the second largest consumer of oil in the world after the United States. And in 2008 it should overtake Germany in the global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) rankings, making it the world's third biggest economy (behind the USA and Japan).

A large part of its success can be attributed to two factors: first, its capacity to mass-produce goods at low cost, due to low labour costs; second, its capacity to export finished products cheaply with the help of a weak currency. Due to these factors China has effectively become the world's factory.

It seems almost unbelievable but China's rise only started three decades ago. It can be traced back to 1978 when a serious drought threatened farming. To incentivise China's collectivist farmers to produce crops in difficult conditions, the Communist government sanctioned that they could keep a proportion of their profits. A massive increase in agricultural output followed and success on the farms is what prompted the extension of the new economic liberalism to industry.

So China's rise, and the breakneck speed at which it has taken place, has got Western investors excited. However, their hunt for improved profit margins at bargain prices does not stop at China, nor for that matter the BRIC emerging economies. Sub-Saharan Africa is rapidly becoming the hot ticket as investors look to take advantage of relative stability and accessibility in order to launch new African-focussed funds, spurred on by the continent's growing commodity boom.

Take Angola. Richly endowed with oil and other commodities and the largest recipient of Chinese investment, this formerly war-ravaged nation is estimated to see its GDP grow between 20% and 30% in 2008, making it the fastest growing economy in the world. Appetite-whetting growth rates like these have led hedge funds such as RP Capital to start specialising in investing in the region.

Meanwhile, in the West the picture does not look half as bright. The dark cloud of the credit crunch that descended last year still lingers. Financial commentators bewail the lack of liquidity that this has caused. It's worth taking a moment to explain exactly what they mean.

Banks and financial institutions have to meet certain requirements from regulators for 'capital adequacy' in that they cannot lend out, or put at risk in their trading activities, more than a set percentage of the actual reserves of money, deposits and gold they hold in the vaults.

In addition, banks and investors also have to be able to settle their debts with each other, settling gains and losses from their intra-trading activities and passing money around the system, according to the risk and returns they are seeking.

As the large banks lost money during the credit crunch, their capital adequacy ratios suffered to the extent they might not have had sufficient money to meet their obligations to each other.

In short, they had run out of money.

This has opened a window of opportunity for Sovereign Wealth Funds (SWFs), i.e. funds that invest national savings for the purpose of profit making.

By the end of 2007 it was clear that this window of opportunity was being duly exploited by emerging market economies: they have stopped only being on the receiving end of investment and have begun hunting for profit margins themselves.

The trend began in June of last year when the private equity group, Blackstone, allowed an entity controlled by the Chinese Government to take a massive stake in its initial public offering (IPO). Ever since then, there has been a steady flow of similar deals.

In October, Bear Stearns agreed to a $1bn investment from Citic Securities, again, from a vehicle controlled by China.

In November Citigroup sold a stake worth $7.5bn to Abu Dhabi's sovereign wealth fund.

In December UBS accepted $9.7bn from the SWF of Singapore and Morgan Stanley took on board investment from China - about $5bn - equal to about 10% of its capital.

So do SWFs provide the remedy to the pain of the credit crunch? Will the strength of emerging markets save us all from a recession?

As is invariably the case in finance as a whole greater expectation must be weighted against a higher level of risk. The 1990s saw a comparable level of hype surrounding emerging markets only for many of these fledgling economies to implode following a period of intense growth.

This phenomenon was apparent in the case of the Mexican and Brazilian economies which suffered huge setbacks in 1994 and 1999 respectively, and most notably in the case of the 'Tiger Nations' of South-East Asia which suffered huge losses as the dot-com bubble came to an abrupt end at the end of the decade, forcing these fragile economies into recession.

The fear that a new bubble will burst is acute in regard to China. There is a view that the companies quoted on its stock market are 150% overvalued compared with Hong Kong.

China's state oil company, PetroChina, is now the largest company in the world, overtaking established behemoths such as Microsoft and General Electric. But there are question marks over whether this represents fair value or not.

Uncertainty also hangs over the sustainability of China's growth. It is likely that if growth continues at its current pace, then workers will demand a higher percentage of the nation's wealth and the Renmimbi will rise against a weakening dollar. Both of these developments will have the effect of reducing the country's competitiveness on the global stage.

The SWFs of China and the oil rich Gulf states will not have so much to invest if their own economic competitiveness starts to wane. Over the coming year, it will be clearer to see the extent to which emerging market economies will become victims of their own success.

In the meantime, what can be said with a degree of certainty is that despite the teething problems of the fledgling emerging economies, their growth shows no immediate sign of abating. This means Western preoccupation with their investment prospects will not either.

That is why if the 19th Century can be dubbed the 'European Century' and the 20th described as being that of the United States, then the 21st Century looks set to belong to the rest of the world.